Falstaff’s Obesity

Falstaff’s Obesity

  [Prince.]  There is a devil that haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man, a tun of man is thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swoll’n parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuff’s cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverent Vice, that grey Iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a capon and eat it? wherein cunning, but in craft? wherein crafty, but in villany? wherein villanous, but in all things? wherein worthy, but in nothing? 

1 Henry IV, 2.4.447-59

Why is Falstaff fat? None of Shakespeare’s sources demands obesity, not Sir John Oldcastle, nor Sir John Fastolf, nor the Jockey in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. When fashioning his Falstaff, at that point his Oldcastle, Shakespeare may have considered the tradition depicting Lollards as overweight, Oldcastle being a Lollard, yet Falstaff’s belly seems to grow more organically from his role as the lord of irresponsibility in the second tetralogy. For Falstaff is a merry devil pregnant with a demon child, a reprobate Prince Hal: the fat knight is the parental alternative to King Henry, whose father, John of Gaunt, was as gaunt as his grandson, Prince Hal. In other words, Shakespeare scaled morality in his second tetralogy: virtue is lean, vice heavy, and Falstaff is the fat man skinny Hal will become, physically and morally, if the prince remains at the Tavern in Eastcheap. In fact, just as Hal’s fulfillment of his future as King of England hangs in the balance in 1 Henry IV, Falstaff’s weight fluctuates, an aspect of the character seldom noted. Born a nobleman, Falstaff was (he says) once skinny, like Hal, but Falstaff’s belly has ballooned (Shakespeare suggests) because he has neglected his duty to the nobility into which he was born. In 1 Henry IV, Falstaff thins out when Hal secures him a “charge of foot,” his national service associated with the extra exercise that sheds pounds. But Falstaff puts the weight back on by the time of his wretched, parodic service in the Battle of Shrewsbury, obesity signifying neglected national service, as it does in Falstaff’s final words of 1 Henry IV: “If I do grow great, I’ll grow less, for I’ll purge and leave sack, and live cleany as a nobleman should do.” Here Shakespeare associates the thin body specifically with the national service of the English nobility, which Falstaff plans to rejoin by dieting.

Stigmatizing Falstaff’s obesity, Shakespeare returned to the dramatic strategy he had used to structure his greatest villain up to that point, Richard III. In the first tetralogy, Richard’s crooked body is a metaphor for his crooked behavior. That is, the spectacle of abnormality signifies the character of villainy on the basis of our common aversion to each. Physically and morally, Richard is repugnant, and we ought to hate him, yet we tend to like Richard because he is funny and because he speaks directly to us in soliloquies and asides. In other words, the tragic pairing of abnormality and villainy is counterbalanced by the comic element of irony. This mixture of tragedy and comedy resolves into a tragicomic plot, not only because it mingles kings and clowns (one Renaissance definition of tragicomedy), but also because the virtuous are rewarded and the vicious punished at the end of the play (another definition). Thus, Shakespeare concludes his first tetralogy with the Earl of Richmond, beautiful and good, slaughtering the stigmatic Richard III, whose final scenes amount to a sinner’s march into hell. In sum, abnormality signifies villainy, but the tragedy presaged by this typology is offset by a comedy manifested in irony, and thus the figure of stigma concludes with tragicomedy. In Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, this figure of stigma operates on and through a supernatural stage, one filled with prodigies, demons, and ghosts and one organized by an active and rational deity such that villains have some visual mark to identify them. This same deity also writes a cosmic justice into the course of time, so that the deformed villain finds damnation, no matter how hard he tries to talk his way out of it. But Shakespeare's second tetralogy does not share the supernatural dramatic ontology of the first. 

Shakespeare brought the figure of stigma onto the naturalized stage of his second tetralogy, but he adapted it to a more modern drama in two ways, first by mollifying the four elements in the figure (abnormality, villainy, irony, tragicomedy), and second by reorganizing the logic that orders those elements. First, as Shakespeare’s drama disrobed the superstitions of the first tetralogy, the points in the figure of stigma became more nuanced. For example, to contrast Richard and Falstaff, with respect to abnormality, a congenital skeletal deformity became an acquired muscular deformity; with respect to villainy, an evil soul became an irresponsible lifestyle; with respect to irony, asides and direct addresses to the audience became witty banter and wordplay remaining within the dramatic illusion; and, with respect to tragicomedy, eternal damnation became disease, banishment, and death. Second, with Falstaff, Shakespeare reorganized the logic governing the figure of stigma. In the first tetralogy, this figure operates according to a “logic of similarity.” On the basis of some metaphorical likeness, the spectacle of a deformed body corresponds to the deformed soul of a character whose deformed speech can abate but not alter the deformed plot of tragicomedy. In contrast to this metaphorical “logic of similarity,” Falstaff displays a metonymical “logic of contiguity”: his immoral lifestyle leads him to acquire the diseases that in turn lead to his death. As such, Shakespeare’s second tetralogy gestures away from both the theological and the psychological models of stigma that were prominent in the first tetralogy and toward a physiological model in which disease and deformity are markers of past immorality and future misery in a disenchanted pathology that underwrites both biological sciences and health studies to this day.


Falstaff’s Sources in Early English Literature
Gluttony in Tudor Literature
Obesity in Shakespeare 


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